USA: SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The deadly wildfires that have ravaged Northern California over the past week — killing dozens and forcing thousands to flee their homes — continued to burn Sunday, as officials hoped lighter winds would help fire-suppression efforts.
The National Weather Service said wind gusts north of San Francisco would gradually decrease Sunday, though “warm and very dry conditions” would persist. A red-flag warning remained in place in the region through Sunday morning.
Overnight Saturday, stronger winds of 35 to 45 mph had prompted a new round of mandatory evacuations for thousands of residents in parts of the Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa, amid fear that a blaze in the area, called the Nuns Fire, would spread more rapidly under heightened fire conditions.
In neighboring Napa County, to the east, officials expressed cautious optimism Saturday.
“Sonoma County has had a very tough morning with the winds that have surfaced over there. We’re not out of the woods and have work to do,” Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said at a news conference. “But on our side of it, off of the Highway 29 area, we have pockets that are burning down into Dry Creek.”
Even as several fires still burn across hundreds of acres in the California wine country, the horrific scale of death and destruction is coming into focus.
At least 40 people have been confirmed dead in four counties, many of them elderly, some burned to ashes. One victim was 14 years old.
Together, the blazes — more than 20 in all since Sunday, including at least six in Sonoma County — have killed more people than any other California wildfire on record. The death toll is certain to rise as authorities — some accompanied by cadaver dogs — continue to explore the wreckage.
Hundreds are still missing. Statewide, an estimated 5,700 structures have been destroyed, including whole neighborhoods reduced to smoldering rubble. Nearly 100,000 people have been displaced, officials said.
“This is truly one of the greatest tragedies California has ever faced,” Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said Saturday.
Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, suffered the most damage, with 22 people confirmed dead and more than 200 reported missing. The fires have destroyed nearly 3,000 homes and caused $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa, the county seat and gateway to the wine tourism industry.
“Santa Rosa will be a different planet,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano told the Los Angeles Times. “There is so much to rebuild. It will absolutely change the community.”
In Napa County, there were six confirmed fatalities as of Saturday; 74 people remain unaccounted for, out of the more than 200 reported missing over the past week.
Firefighters have made some significant gains. As of Saturday, some of the deadliest fires in Sonoma and Napa counties were about 50 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Over the past week, air tankers have dropped more than 2 million gallons of retardant on the ground.
As blazes are extinguished, counties have been preparing to let people return to evacuated areas.
“My commitment and top priority remains to bring back normalcy to this community,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Bret Gouvea said Saturday. The causes of the fires remain under investigation, he added.
Deputies had begun the task of searching for the missing and the dead, with bodies showing up in a variety of conditions.
“We have recovered people where their bodies are intact,” Giordano said Friday, “and we have recovered people where there’s just ash and bone.”
The majority of the victims who have been identified were elderly, except for the 14-year-old, who was found near his family’s home in Mendocino County. Kai Logan Shepherd was running away from the fire when he was killed, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
Of the 10 Sonoma County victims who have been named by police, two were identified through medical devices or implants, two through dental records and another by a distinctive tattoo, while others were matched with fingerprints or visuals and other investigative means.
Most were from Santa Rosa, and all were older adults, with an average age of 75, the sheriff’s office said. The youngest, Michael John Dornbach, was 57; the oldest, Arthur Tasman Grant, was 95. In neighboring Napa County, an elderly couple who had just celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary were killed Sunday. Another elderly couple in their 80s also were killed in Mendocino County.
Sonoma County spokesman Scott Alonso said it’s not clear why the victims were unable to escape the fire. But, he said, “folks who are elderly have some mobility challenges and are wheelchair-bound. They may not have access to a car. We had calls right when the fires were going on . . . folks needed rides. They needed rides to get out of those mandatory evacuation zones.”
Of 1,485 missing-person reports in Sonoma County, 1,250 people had been found safe by Friday afternoon, said Giordano, the sheriff. The whereabouts of the 235 missing were still unknown, although it is possible that a number of them were found but not yet reported to authorities. Others may be out of touch because of power outages and downed cell towers. In most cases, people were removed from a list of missing persons after authorities received calls from families saying they’ve been found.
As the week progressed, authorities began facing questions about the cause of the most damaging blaze, in Sonoma, and whether they did enough to warn vulnerable residents as the flames edged closer to populated areas.
The scrutiny marks the next phase of a disaster that erupted seemingly out of nowhere last Sunday night, prompting panic among residents who had no idea that a fire was bearing down on them and emergency workers who said they were stunned at the speed with which the fire gained speed.
In Sonoma County, law enforcement officials said they used a Reverse 911 system to call residents’ landlines to evacuate. The county also sent out alerts through a voluntary text-message system. As of June, however, just 10,500 of the county’s half-million residents had signed up for the alerts.
Alonso, the county spokesman, said officials chose to not send out a countywide alert to cellphones out of fear that such a message would incite panic and clog roadways.
“We wanted to target specific neighborhoods that were under fire,” he said. “If an all-county emergency evacuation was issued, the roads would’ve been jammed, [and] our emergency responders would’ve had difficulty getting to where they need to go to evacuate people.”
On Friday, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office released body-camera footage showing a deputy frantically driving door to door in Santa Rosa early Monday, as flames closed in on the neighborhood.
Panting and coughing, the deputy can be heard seen running through heavy smoke and flying embers trying to notify residents. At one point, he and another person help evacuate a disabled woman.
“Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, this is a mandatory evacuation notice!” the deputy blares through a loudspeaker as he drives through a street flanked by fire. “Leave your homes!”
Days later, Santa Rosa residents would be sifting through the ashes of what used to be their homes — or stood shocked to discover their houses had somehow survived.
In downtown Santa Rosa on Saturday, about 150 residents waited in line to enter an assistance center where they could register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster relief.
As volunteers passed out sandwiches and ash flitted through the air, some displaced residents highlighted a silver lining in their devastating losses: They knew their homes had burned, while there are still thousands who live in evacuation zones and don’t know whether their homes are still standing.
“It’s probably harder to not know than to know,” said Steve Vella, who lived in the Coffey Park area, the majority of which burned early Monday.
“I told my husband it’s a relief that we know our fate,” added Corinne Rasmussen, a 54-year-old administrative assistant who had lived in the Larkfield area. She and her husband are currently staying with her sister in Rohnert Park while trying to figure out their next move.
A FEMA representative outside the assistance center said that the agency didn’t yet know whether it would be constructing temporary housing for those who have been displaced. The priority was to determine how much and what kind of assistance would be needed.
“Right now we want to get disaster survivors registered,” said FEMA spokesman Victor Inge.
A block away from the assistance center, a poster summed up the local mood: “The love in the air is thicker than smoke.”
Brown and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Kamala D. Harris (D) visited the disaster zone in Sonoma County on Saturday afternoon and spoke at a packed town hall meeting.
“This community has endured such incredible loss and pain,” Harris said. “Please take advantage of all the resources that are available to you . . . It’s going to be a long road ahead.”